#273 Interpreting the Past - Manhattanhenge

Twice a year the axial tilt of the Earth and the Earth's position around the sun create a situation where the buildings of New York City line up exactly with the rising and setting sun. New York City is probably the most famous city on the planet which is why this actually makes the news every year. I'm willing to bet most cities on a roughly east-west alignment will experience their own solar henge phenomenon. But, they're not NYC.

Interpreting History

How will future researchers, possibly alien, interpret this astronomical alignment? Across the plant archaeologists ascribe spiritual and ritualistic explanation to structural features that appear to be aligned to astronomical phenomenon. From sunrise and sunset at the solstice to petroglyphs and pictographs that depict astronomical events, there are cultures all over the planet that notice and honor these events. What does it mean? Why do they do it?

Most of the time, archaeologists figure that ancient cultures we're honoring the longest and shortest days of the year in order to keep a calendar, mark the passage of time, and/or know when to harvest. How can we say what value they actually gave to these alignments.

But, here's a question - how do we know this isn't just a coincidence in some cases? How many massive archaeological monuments are NOT aligned to astronomical events? How many petroglyphs and pictographs have nothing to do with astronomy? The answer is likely in the millions.

This brings up Manhattanhenge again.  The famous astrophysicist tells us that Manhattanhenge takes place twice a year - once on Memorial Day and once near the Baseball Allstar game. He concludes that future researchers would find this layout and determine that the ancient people that called themselves "Americans" worshipped War and Baseball. Is that accurate? Perhaps. However, New York City has been around since long before Memorial Day and Baseball. Regardless, we know the orientation of the city is based on the orientation of the island of Manhattan, not the sun rising and setting in a certain location on a certain day. If we go far enough into the future, though, the outlines of Manhattan Island might be indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape. Perhaps an earthquake will reshape the land. Perhaps the ocean will recede and land will come back with formation-changing vegetation and erosion. Who knows?

Think before you write

I guess what I'm getting at is that we have to be cautious regarding our interpretations of sites. I've seen so many tin can scatters that I can't keep them straight anymore. We look at these artifacts and say with confidence that it was a short lunch by a couple of ranchers - or it was an oil change on the side of a long-forgotten two-track road - or it was simply a dump that was collected from somewhere else and deposited in the desert without ceremony or reason.

There are any number of reasons why a collection of artifacts are present in a given situation. I'm not saying don't take a guess. I'm just saying to call it an interpretation based on evidence but leave the door open for other interpretations. Try not to bias your site records and reports with your ideas. Don't plant a seed in a future researcher's head that may lead down an incorrect path. Just present your evidence, present your ideas, and leave it at that.

Thanks for reading and I'll see you in the field!!